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Defending autism-spectrum disorder

As someone with a diagnosed autism-spectrum disorder, I am deeply concerned about the implications of confessed mass-murderer Alek Minassian claiming in a Toronto court that he is not criminally responsible for killing 10 people due to the same condition.


It may turn out that this man, in addition to being on the spectrum, also suffers from a mental illness, which had some bearing on his actions — that remains to be seen. However, it troubles me that, in this tragic case now commanding attention across the country and beyond, autism-spectrum disorder is being conflated with mental illness, two things which are entirely unrelated.


Having Asperger syndrome (as it was called at the time of my diagnosis) comes with certain gifts, in my view, but it is fraught with challenges as well. The social stigma of the autism label is an added impediment, an unnecessary one, which will hopefully fade as better information about autism-spectrum disorders percolate into the public consciousness.


The distinction between being on the autism spectrum, as opposed to having some kind of mental-illness episode – which was so profound as to allegedly render this man not accountable for steering a van into a crowd of pedestrians – needs to be made clearly and repeatedly during the course of reporting on this trial. If this distinction is not emphasized, I fear it will lead to further stigmatization of those of us on the spectrum who, in no way, shape or form, are a threat to the public more so than the population at large, according to a 2009 report, “No Increase in Criminal Convictions in Hans Asperger's Original Cohort,” in Journalism of Autism and Developmental Disorders, and a host of other peer-reviewed studies.


I don’t blame the media for the conflation of autism with a purported mental-illness episode resulting in a mass killing — I fault Mr. Minassian’s legal counsel for publicly claiming such an irresponsible defence. But I do think all media platforms and modalities have a responsibility to make the difference abundantly clear as they report on this case.


Paul Hetzler is a resident of Val-des-Monts, an arborist and author.


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